Punctuation Usage Guide
Use the links below to jump to a specific section.

APOSTROPHES - ASTERISKS - COMMAS - COLONS - DASHES - DATES - ELLIPSES - EXCLAMATION POINTS - HYPHENS - PARENTHESES - PERIODS - QUESTION MARKS - QUOTATION MARKS - SEMICOLONS - TIMES


APOSTROPHES - Apostrophes are used to show possession or to show where letters, numbers, or words have been omitted or shortened to form a contraction.

Singular nouns add an apostrophe and an s, like so:
the girl's homework
the boy's dog
the farmer's cows
Singular nouns that end in "s" sound add only an apostrophe if the noun has two or more syllables and extra "s" sounds would increase pronunciation difficulty (try saying the extra "s" to see):
the sorceress' wand
for goodness' sake
Frankie Muniz' career
otherwise, it's okay to add 's.
Plural nouns that end with "s" add only the apostrophe:
girls' restroom, diners' plates
Plural nouns add 's:
women's restroom, children's toys
Common contractions
  • I am - I'm
  • He has/she has - He's/she's
  • We/They had - We'd/They'd
  • We/They have - We've/They've
  • let us - let's
  • Where is - where's
  • we are - we're
  • I/he/she/you will - I'll/he'll/she'll/you'll
  • of the clock - o'clock
  • is not - isn't
  • does not - doesn't
  • has not - hasn't
  • should not - shouldn't
  • were not - weren't
  • you are - you're (not your)

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ASTERISKS - Asterisks (*) are used to indicate that a note is attached to the statement (usually a footnote or endnote--most often seen when giving credit for a reference used). Do not separate sections in your writing with a row of asterisks. Create a new chapter or connect the sections with transitional phrases and paragraphs.

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COMMAS - Commas have three main purposes: to set off a dependent phrase or clause, to separate words of direct address, and after introductory words.

1) Setting off a dependent clause:

After Harry filled his glass, he moved over to join Ron and Hermione.

"After Harry filled his glass" is not a complete sentence. We have to separate it from the independent clause (the part of the sentence that could stand on its own).

2) Separate words of direct address:

"Harry, did you do your homework?"

"Hermione, will you pass me the bacon?"

3) Setting off introductory words:

"Yes, I will join you." "Well, I thought I might go." "Indeed, Harry, your aunt and uncle can be harsh." "However, you must still live with them."

Commas are also used to set off interrupting words or descriptive expressions:

"The unicorn, you see, is a noble beast." "Madam Pomfrey, the Hogwarts nurse, mended Harry's bones."

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COLONS - Colons are used to punctuate time (see TIMES, below). Colons are also used to set off a list of things.

Proper use:

The club will meet three days a week: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

The swimmers compete at three levels: beginner, intermediate, and advanced.

Colons are unnecessary if an introductory phrase is used. Examples of introductory phrases are as follows: for example, namely, for instance, and that is.

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DASHES - Dashes are used to indicate a break in thought or to set off explanatory words. You may confuse dashes with hyphens (see explanation here).

"I want to go with you--stop!" (break in thought)

The three levels of competition--beginner, intermediate, and advanced--are standard at every meet. (explanatory words provide additional detail).

"I wrote that down--oh, where's the paper--it was 1976." (break in thought)

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DATES - see also times and commas

In conventional American English, we use a comma to separate the day from the year and the year from the rest of the sentence if necessary:

Harry Potter was born on July 31, 1980.
On July 31, 1980, Harry Potter was born.

In some other countries, it is conventional to reverse the month and date, making a comma unnecessary: 31 July 1980.

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ELLIPSES - Ever wonder what those three dots are called? Well, they are ellipses, and we use them to indicate a break in thought. Note that there are three periods with no spaces between them:

"I don't understand..." Hermione trailed off, looking uncomfortably at Professor Vector.

Ellipses are also used when you are quoting a source and you want to just include a portion of the quote.

"On page thirty-six in your Care of Magical Creatures text you will find a list of poisonous insects." becomes
"On page thirty-six ... you will find a list of poisonous insects."

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EXCLAMATION POINTS - the key thing to remember when it comes to exclamation points is that one is enough. Exclamation points are emphasis enough--there's no need to haul out the sledgehammer and bang your reader over the head by using two or more. Exclamation points can be used at the end of a sentence or to create one-word sentences:

Ouch! No! Stop! Don't!
"Stop hitting your brother right now!"

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HYPHENS - First, a general note of caution: you should not use hyphens to create line breaks in text that will be posted on the Internet, as site visitors will view the page in different resolutions (making your correct hyphens appear to be errors). Thought your hyphen was a dash? Go here. The five major reasons to use hyphens are:

1. to separate a word (between syllables) at the end of the line in running text (like in a newspaper column). The correct way to do this is presi-dent or pres-ident, not presid-ent--the separation goes between two separate syllables.

2. to join compound numbers. Example: thirty-two (not thirtytwo or thirty two)

3. to write a fraction as a word. Example: three-fifths (not three fifths or three/fifths)

4. to join compound nouns and adjectives. Examples: fat-necked, thin-lipped

5. to avoid confusion in awkward words: anti-icing formula (instead of antiicing)

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PARENTHESES - Parentheses (singular parenthesis) are used to insert a thought in a sentence. These parenthetical statements provide additional information on the sentence. For example:

Rita Skeeter (a self-proclaimed attractive reporter for the Daily Prophet) often writes stories that are not entirely true.

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PERIODS - one would think the use of periods would go without saying, but nevertheless, they are often under-used by fledgling authors. Periods are used to end a sentence (or a complete thought). For example:

Harry threw the ball. ('Harry threw' is a fragment. Harry threw what? Threw up? Threw his book?)

Incorrect: Harry threw the ball Ron caught the ball Hermione rolled her eyes at them
Correct: Harry threw the ball and Ron caught it. Hermione rolled her eyes at them.
Correct: Harry threw the ball. Ron caught it. Hermione rolled her eyes at them.

Special note--if your sentence ends in an abbreviation with a period (for example, A.M.), it is not necessary to add a second period.

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QUESTION MARKS - question marks indicate that a question has been asked. Question marks replace the period as the end punctuation.

Incorrect: Who? was at the door.
Correct: Who was at the door?
Potentially Incorrect: I was angry? Why: Make sure that, in context, the sentence is actually a question. See below:

"She said you were really angry." "I was angry? No, that wasn't it. I was--I was--incensed." (used as a question)
"She said you were really angry." "I was angry. I told her so." (not a question)

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QUOTATION MARKS - quotation marks are used to show that a set of words, phrases, or sentences are the exact words that were spoken.

"I'm not going with you," she said. -- needs quotations. Please note the placement of the comma and quotation marks.

"Where is Hagrid?" Hermione asked. Note that a comma is not necessary--the question mark takes its place.

"I can't believe this!" Ron shouted. Again, no comma necessary.

"She looked at me and said, 'You are a slimy git.'" - Use single quotes ' ' for a quotation within a quotation.

"I can't do it," Hermione replied dismally, "because I've been disqualified." - No capitalization is necessary. Could also be written as:
"I can't do it because I've been disqualified," Hermione replied dismally. OR:
Hermione replied dismally, "I can't do it because I've been disqualified."

Special formatting note: If a character speaks for more than one paragraph, you do not put a quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph. You do put one at the beginning of the second. Only put one at the end of the second paragraph if the character is finished speaking.

Also, remember that traditionally only one character is allowed to speak in a paragraph. Create a new paragraph each time a new character speaks.

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SEMICOLONS - Semicolons are used to join two independent clauses, which are groups of words that could stand on their own as a sentence. The two clauses must be closely related. You do not capitalize the first letter in the second clause unless it is a proper noun and requires capitalization.

I have been writing for a long time; it is one of my favorite pastimes.
I have been writing for a long time. It is one of my favorite pastimes.

I have been writing for a long time; football is a sport played on a field. (Incorrect, these clauses are not closely related).

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TIMES

1. Use of colons and periods - 8:20 signifies eight hours and twenty minutes. 8:20.05 is eight hours, twenty minutes, and five seconds.

2. Use of A.M. and P.M. - 8:20 A.M. (capital letters, period after each, space between the minute and the morning/afternoon designation).

3. Use of o'clock. It was eight o'clock. Not: It was 8 o'clock. Not: It was 8: o'clock.

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Written by MickiNell. (11/04/2004)

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